Today (4/30/2024) the Washington Post ran a guest editorial with this title, “The ideal number of kids in a family: Four (at a minimum).” The author is Timothy P. Carney, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs To Be. Carney argues that the more kids, the merrier. He writes,

The best way to make parenting and childhood happier and less stressful is to have more kids, not fewer of them. . . . Smaller households, where the parents adhere to the quality-over-quantity mind-set, tend to become child-centric. In the best circumstances, this teaches the children to focus all their energies on self-improvement to maximize individual success. . . . The best large-family model is neither child-centric nor parent-centric but family-centric. Everyone has roles to play in pursuit of a common good. Children in this model still have the freedom and independence to decide who they want to be but aren’t crafting their life scripts on a blank page: They’re establishing their identities in relation to their parents, siblings and cousins.

head in sand
These few sentences sum up the editorial. I am not convinced he is correct according to the sparse data he provides for this conclusion. It is certainly true that youths in America are undergoing severe psychological stress. But I believe that this article is downright dangerous. It suffers from the libertarian, self-directed philosophy of the American Enterprise Institute, where the individual is valued much, much more than the community. And it completely ignores the understanding that individual acts concatenate and produce systemic impacts, in this case, global warming and other serious Planetary ills.

Some scientists have argued that we have left the Holocene period—our geological home for some 11,000 years—and are moving into the Anthropocene, the first time that human life is significantly affecting planetary processes. The average surface temperature of the planet is not just increasing with time, it is increasing at an ever faster rate. Using footprint, another indicator of human impacts on Earth, the consensus among a different group of scientists is that it would take about 1.7 Earths to maintain present-day lifestyles. Another measure of our impact called planetary boundaries, maintained by a Swedish research institute, was recently updated. Here is their conclusion:

Now the latest update not only quantified all boundaries, it also concludes that six of the nine boundaries have been transgressed. Crossing boundaries increases the risk of generating large-scale abrupt or irreversible environmental changes. Drastic changes will not necessarily happen overnight, but together the boundaries mark a critical threshold for increasing risks to people and the ecosystems we are part of. Boundaries are interrelated processes within the complex biophysical Earth system. This means that a global focus on climate change alone is not sufficient for increased sustainability. Instead, understanding the interplay of boundaries, especially climate, and loss of biodiversity, is key in science and practice.The many components of the Earth system, animate and inanimate, are strongly interconnected by complex, dynamic causal relationships that may exhibit long delays in responding to perturbations. The responses to perturbations may appear to be linear or even exponential over time but may also exhibit tipping points that if reached would move the system into a different regime with serious consequent upsets. A recent report by 200 scientists details these tipping points. A few summary points from the Exeter report ( are “If we hit a tipping point the consequent change will be irreversible, greater than any other humans have faced, and global in scope. Global responses are urgently needed. We need a deeper understanding of tipping points – but without delaying action. The world is largely flying blind into this vast threat.”

Given that the Earth system is complex, it is difficult to isolate the exact causes of these threats, but here is one explanation taken from a recent scholarly paper that points to three aspects of normal societal behavior that are causing these global upsets. Look closely at item 3.

1.  Marketing/consumption
2.  Economic growth that results from consumptive behaviors and capitalist norms. I would add that growth, per se, is, the highest-order goal in virtually all capitalist societies.
3.  Pronatalism—policies that directly or indirectly promote large families. For millennia, the exponential potential of population increase was limited by negative factors:  resource shortages, competition and disease – which naturally curbed continued population growth. Access to cheap energy changed that and population has grown rapidly to numbers that cannot be supported by the earth system. H. sapiens took around 250,000 years to reach a global population of 1 billion in 1820 and just over 200 years to go from 1 billion to 8 billion [not a typo!].

All three of these normative goals were once consistent with the capacity of the Planet to provide the framework for them. Other analysts invoke different set of “causes.” Such is the challenge of complexity.

But that challenge cannot be used to justify the call for larger families that Carney is making. It is almost ludicrous to write thus when it is clear that the Earth is already so overburdened. The old  I = PAT relation still holds, approximately. To keep our impact, I, from become larger, when population, P, grows either affluence as consumption, A, or technological efficiency, T, must decrease. The American Enterprise Institute would never, never propose cutting consumption back. And efficiency has fallen far behind the magnitude necessary to keep the impact under wraps. Given the ubiquity of calls for continued growth, population must decrease, not get larger, to prevent or lessen the impacts. Expecting efficiency gains to permit more people on Earth is simply unwarranted.

This editorial angered and nearly brought me to tears. It symbolizes the way political ideologies are blinding us to the present reality we are living within. In many cases, the consequences of these ideologies are not clear and debate is acceptable. But this one is over the top. It appears that denial is not limited to the last election deniers, but is deeply rooted within one of the nation’s most powerful Conservative political think tanks.

One Reply to “Smaller, Not Larger Families Are Necessary to Save the Planet”

  1. Thank you for that.

    I was horrified in the late 1960s (when Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb” was creating a stir) that Ethyl Kennedy said the smallest number of children a family should have is four, because each child needs both a brother and a sister. Yes, that Ethyl Kennedy. Mother of anti-vaxxer RFK Junior. A woman owes it to her children to keep popping babies until she gets at least two of each, however many babies are required.

    Carney’s op-ed suggests that WaPo has a policy of both-sides-ism even when there is only one side. It also shows that Carney is dangerously out of touch with reality.

    Perhaps WaPo can find someone to write an opinion piece about why it’s essential to mine more coal and build more coal plants.

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